Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Category: Quick Tip (page 1 of 5)

Have a Blank Day (Quick Tip)

blank dayOpower, the energy-savings and utility software company where I work has only been around for a few years, but one of the reasons I love working here is that they aren’t afraid to try new, potentially game-changing things.

Once a month, if you walk around on the 7th floor of our building, you’ll see a bright, open space with people, headphones on, concentrating on something they’ve been meaning to get done for ages. Some people work from home. Some come in just before lunch to take advantage of the free food Opower provides to mark this special day. This is Blank Day.

What Is Blank Day?

Blank Day is a full day without meetings. The concept has been around for a long time. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of articles on the merits of “No Meeting Wednesdays“, but in reality, it doesn’t matter what day of the week you choose. On Blank Day, everyone is encouraged to remove all meetings from their calendars and concentrate on something important that they just haven’t gotten time to work on. Our entire R&D and Client Delivery organizations have embraced Blank Day. Even those who were skeptical at first (“what the hell am I supposed to do all day?!”) have since gotten on board.

Why I Love Blank Day

For me, Blank Day is a day of bliss. I use it to knock out all kinds of tasks, especially the ones that require more than an hour of my attention. I’ve used Blank Day to work on slides for a conference or an executive, I’ve blogged, I’ve laid out my ideas for new processes, and I’ve also come into Blank Day with a backlog of seven major things I wanted to get done and left with five of them completely finished (I knew seven was unattainable, but it was nice to have stretch goals). The advantages of Blank Day include:

  1. No excuse not to start: With an entire day ahead of you, there’s no excuse to procrastinate. I once put off a project that I suspected would take me half a day and I finished it in 45 minutes on Blank Day. I should have just started it days before, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that until I knew I had a chunk of time set aside.
  2. No meetings: Need I say more?
  3. Productivity: On Blank Days, it seems like I get the equivalent of a regular week’s worth of work done in a single day. What if we held them more often?
  4. Uninterrupted time: Some projects can’t be done in 30-minute or hour-long chunks. Software Engineers in particular need time to concentrate on their code. Blank Days give you that uninterrupted time.
  5. Flow: According to Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow, or that state of being totally absorbed in something that’s both challenging and satisfying, is important for your mental health and happiness. To get there, you need to be doing something you love and the space to lose yourself in it.

Disadvantages of Blank Day

Each Blank Day I hear a couple of complaints:

  1. Meeting displacement: Your other days tend to fill up with meetings.
  2. Client calls: Not everyone can participate. If a client needs to meet on Blank Day, customers take precedence.

How to Carve Out Your Own Blank Day

Setting up a Blank Day for yourself is always easier if you have company, but you can make huge strides on your own.

Here are some steps to take to carve out your own Blank Day. If one of these doesn’t work, try another one.

  1. Block off your calendar: You don’t need to say anything to anyone, just do it. Block an entire day (each month or week) on your calendar and proactively avoid adding meetings to those days. Talk to people who schedule meetings over your work block and see if you can get them moved. It’s amazing how many people will start to naturally avoid inviting you to meetings on your Blank Day.
  2. Find friends: See if you can get your co-workers to agree on a day where no one will have meetings. Typically, it’s the managers who have an issue with this. Remind them that they have tasks they need to concentrate on too.
  3. Announce it: If #2 doesn’t work, announce that you’ve instituted Blank Day and explain why. People will respect your decision and I guarantee you’ll get more people who want to do it too, than who want you to stop doing it.
  4. Start small: If you can’t block off an entire day, why not start with two hours? Two hours of time to get something done is better than nothing!

What would you do if you had a Blank Day?

Power Hour (Quick Tip)

I’m reading Gretchen Rubin’s new book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, in which Rubin dissects the art of forming habits to give you a toolbox for forming good habits and breaking bad habits. She splits the population into four types of people (Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels) and describes how to approach habit-forming with each one. It’s a fascinating read! Along the way, Rubin talks about a lot of specific habits and one of those caught my attention. She calls it Power Hour.

Power Hour

Each week, set aside one hour for those annoying tasks you know you need to just get done, but never have time for. This is Power Hour.

Make a list of the tasks you want to get done and focus on them, starting with the first one until the hour is up.

Power Hour Tasks

Rubin suggests you fill your list with one-time tasks; those things that aren’t recurring that you need to get done (like scheduling appointments and figuring out how to use a new tool). They shouldn’t be things with tight deadlines because those will get done naturally over the course of the week. Use this hour for things that you never seem to get to.

That advice got me thinking about something I, personally, never have time for: cleaning. I hate cleaning. I hate it so much that I never make time for it. I can’t justify spending a lot of time cleaning, because, with two kids in the house, all of my work is undone in milliseconds. I can’t justify paying someone else to clean for exactly the same reason. So, I tend to let things get really dirty. Cleaning isn’t officially a non-recurring task, but I thought Power Hour was the perfect solution to motivate me to actually clean.

Power Hour in Practice

Last weekend, I officially repurposed Power Hour for cleaning. I made a backlog (bathrooms, tubs, random stuff lying in the living room, floors, windows) and got as much done as I could in an hour. In my first hour, I cleaned both bathrooms (including the tub) and picked up the living room. It was a good start.

This weekend, I tried it again. I skipped the tub (it’s still clean!) and was able to clean both bathrooms, all floors, and pick-up the living room. Things look really good! I turn on some music, I focus on my backlog of cleaning tasks and stuff gets done.

Why Power Hour Rocks

At the end of one hour, I’ve gotten a lot done and I really, truly feel done. Time-boxing allows me to set aside the time for a specific task and forgive myself for what didn’t get done. If I hold Power Hour every week, I can pick-up the unfinished tasks the following week.

What tasks would you work on during Power Hour?

Digital Declutter: Three Tips for Decluttering Photos As You Go

According to the April 2012 edition of National Geographic, Americans were projected to take 105 billion digital photos this year. That’s 322 per person and I’m pretty sure I take WAY more than that.

Inforgraphic Credit: National Geographic

Inforgraphic Credit: National Geographic

I have no idea how my mother ever got a single good photo of my sister and I without a digital camera. She’s got albums filled with decent shots of us smiling into the camera, but when I take pictures, I usually take 20 and settle for the one where my five-year-old isn’t frowning and my two-year-old is still in the frame.

Alison is Silly

I used to save every shot, download them, and keep most of them – even if they were bad photos. Now we have a million photos taking up a lot of space on various drives and if I have to find a particularly good shot? Forget about it.

Three Tips for Decluttering Photos As You Go

Tip #1: Delete Photos As You Go

Knowing that someday I will need to do a full digital declutter of our photo folders, I’ve started to pre-declutter. After taking a few photos, I immediately go back and delete the bad ones. I save only one photo – the best photo – of each pose.

If I’m really on top of things, I save only one photo from an entire event. Photos are great for bringing back memories, but those memories can just as easily be triggered by one photo as they can with 20.

Keep only the best shots. Only download keepers.

Tip #2: Mark Favorites

Another key part of keeping photo folders clean is picking out the very best photos as you download them. This is a tip from Joshua Becker’s book Clutterfree with Kids. He suggests using a photo-organizing program like the Mac OS X Photos software in which you can tag or favorite photos. That way, when you need to go back and find a good photo you have a quick list of the very best ones.

Keep a short list of your very favorite photos.

Tip #3: Photo Blogging

In a slight twist to favoriting photos, I keep a private family blog. My best photos go on the blog along with some commentary. At the end of the year, I turn the blog into a book, which serves as a photo album for the year. When I need to go back and find a great photo, I start with the blog.

Our Private Family Blog

Our Private Family Blog

I love this technique because distant relatives can keep track of what we’re doing throughout the year and I don’t have to spend a bunch of time scrapbooking. The blog serves both purposes. You can do something similar by starting a free blog on Blogger or WordPress and turning your blog into a book at Blog2Print or Blurb.

Blog only your favorite photos.

Note: There are many, many other sites you can use to write a blog and print a book. I recommend doing your research before starting. I have used Blogger and Blog2Print in the past, but every year there are new options that warrant evaluation.

Do you have any tips for choosing your best photos? Comment and share!

Relationship Journals & Happiness (Quick Tip)

relationship journal - Photo Credit: UnsplashA study from Brigham Young University recently concluded that women were the least happy in their marriages around the 10-year mark. This is because we’re likely to have a tiny kid or two in tow and men still don’t do 50% of the housework and planning necessary to run a household.

At the end of May, Nathan and I happen to be celebrating our 10-year anniversary and the study resonates with me. I am tired and we’re not splitting the household work and organization duties down the middle. I can’t even get Nathan to talk about it sometimes without him rolling his eyes.

Relationship Journals

During my hour-long commute, I’m reading the latest Dan and Chip Heath book called Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions in Life and Work. I love their work (Switch and Made to Stick are both great books on how to make long-term, high-impact changes to your life). One of the chapters, called “Considering the Opposite”, talks about an intrinsic problem with human decision-making. Once we’ve formed an opinion, we subconsciously seek out evidence that upholds our opinion and conveniently ignore the counter-evidence (sound familiar, partisan US Congress?). So, when you’re frustrated with your spouse, you tend to see all of the bad things he or she does and ignore the good ones. An interesting way to turn that trend around is to keep a relationship journal.

Fix Your Perception of Reality

The premise is simple and takes two minutes a day. Every day, write down at least one good thing that your spouse did.

That’s it. I find this works really well with the kids too. When you first get started, it’s really hard to think of good things because your brain is trained to pay attention to the missteps, but soon the floodgates open and you actually start to pay attention to the good things as they happen.

I started mine on Monday and I’ve already noticed a big difference. My first entry was, “Nathan didn’t pick as many fights with my mom this weekend as usual.” (What I couldn’t quite get out of my head at the time was that he didn’t remember Mother’s Day, which made me sad.)

By the end of the week, I was already pre-programmed to find the good things like, “Nathan made a special trip to the store to get the exact kind of cake I like for my birthday.”

The effect is pretty radical. The person or situation that you’re journaling about hasn’t changed, only your perception changes. But your perception of the world is a big deal. I find myself much, much happier on a day-to-day basis, when I’m not dwelling on the things that are going wrong.

And here’s some more good news: The same study I referenced in the beginning about the perils of the 10-year relationship mark also noted that once you hit 35 years of marriage you go back to being as happy as you were when you first met. Perhaps if I keep journaling, we’ll make it that long.

Get More Done: Add Timing to Your To Do List (Quick Tip)


I’ve been getting my entire daily to do list done almost every day for the past few weeks and it’s not because I’m putting less on it. Each day I have at least 5-10 tasks that I’m trying to get done in addition to meetings and other distractions. It’s a good-sized list.

Instead, I’m adding one key element to the margins that helps me focus.

In the margins of my to do list, I add what time I’ll be working on each task.

Here’s how I set-up my daily list:

  1. Write out the to do list first thing in the morning (or if I’m really firing on all cylinders, I do this the night before).
  2. List all of my meetings for the day with times and locations at the bottom.
  3. Focus on the open periods of time and assign them to each item starting with the highest priority item that can be done in that amount of time. I also pay attention to the times when I have the most energy, which is morning for me. If I have an important task that requires a lot of focus, I try to assign it a time slot in the morning.
  4. When you run out of time slots for the day, everything left on the list gets removed.

The to do list above is my actual list today.

How to Adjust Throughout the Day

Sometimes you’ll finish ahead of schedule, and if you do, you can always add an item back to the list or take a well-deserved coffee break. More likely, you’ll start running behind the second someone unexpectedly comes to talk to you. When that happens, pick up where you left off. If you don’t have time left for the task slotted, get the task for the next same-sized slot done. During the next slot, find the next highest priority task that will fit in the slot and do that. Since you’ve already added timing to your tasks, it’s easy to find the next most important to work on that will fit into whatever time you have left.

Why Does This Work?

  1. Your expectations for the day are more reasonable to begin with.
  2. You spend time thinking about your priorities and that knowledge sticks with you all day.
  3. The timing serves to timebox your work, which helps you decide how much work on an item is enough and when to move on to another task.
  4. You understand exactly where your day went wrong and can learn to correct issues or anticipate them in the future.
  5. The first time you finish something early, you feel so good that you gain momentum for the rest of the day.

In practice, I end up finishing all of my tasks for the day about 80% of the time and 50% of the time I finish them EARLY. The timing really helps me focus on the task at hand and churn through a seemingly bloated list.

What other ways have you found to get your daily to do list done?

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